These are a collections of thoughts or fascinations I've had. While they are added in a blog-style format, I intend for them to be less preachy and more of an insight into some of the topics that I'm currently discussing or have taken an interest in. They are discussion points, nuanced cultural issues, and burdens that we create and carry.


Talking Science Funding with my Congresswoman

September 20, 2017

Recently I had the privilege exercised my civic duties and had a meeting with my Congressional representative, Carolyn Maloney. I went with a group primarily organized by the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). This was the first year of a regional counterpart to SfN's Capitol Hill Day, as I wrote about on my Activities page. My team was four PhD students and faculty from various institutions who live or work in Maloney's district and who span the neurosciences. Our specific Asks were particular funding points for the NIH and NSF, for her to do a lab visit to see where tax dollars go, as well as to champion neuroscience causes on the Hill, such as joining the Neuroscience Caucus, signing a Dear Colleague letter, etc. We had one training session for general advocacy tips, but it was neither specific to our team, nor did it focus on Ask content or team strategy. This proved to not be enough.

The meeting immediately took a different tone than we were expecting. Her first question was what our Asks were, which was fine; we had that covered. Within a minute, however, Rep. Maloney put us on the defensive. To paraphrase her, All my friends have Alzheimer’s. We pour billions into the NIH and there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s. Where are the cures?! This isn't fundamnetally wrong. Asking for more taxpayer money for any cause should require a robust explanation, but the manner in which we were put on the spot made it difficult for us to recover. We were fortunate to have two team members who actually do research which applies to Alzheimer's Disease. Our attempts to push back by discussing developed treatments, lack of private investment, and even economic and health benefits served to pivot more than rebut. She offered a fundraising campaign similar to which she championed for breast cancer. It was a noble idea, no doubt, but the $8 million raised - and countless hours spent - don't hold up to the billions in increased spending we requested. It was clear this wasn't her first meeting; She later told us she supports the funding increase. In my mind, this conveyed that she supports the Scientific cause, but not strongly enough to use much political capital when she's on the Hill. It was also tough to remain professional, to allow ourselves to be interrupted, and keep patience. THE BRAIN IS COMPLICATED AND WHEN WE SPEND THREE-FOURTHS OF A TRILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR ON MENTAL AND NEURODEGENERATIVE DISEASE, MAYBE A FEW DECADES AND A FEW MORE BILLION AREN'T QUITE ENOUGH.

Overall it was an initially jarring but postive experience. I learned a lot and am looking forward to trying again. Plus, Congress passed a budget at our requested funding levels.


Science is an evolving species, and how it can be censored

January 25, 2017

Just as there are social cliques in academic institutions, there are scientific cliques, too. One scientist will disagree with the majority on a problem in their field. It happens in my field, it happened in a series of discoveries about the center of the universe, and it happens between proponents and the far fewer critics of climate change models. In the current system of peer review publication, general but non-unanimous consensus can lead to a de facto censorship; scientists will be more critical of out-group findings. However, if the out-group scientists are good enough and their models better explain the data, they’ll win out, just as Newton’s Laws were replaced by relativity and quantum mechanics. In this way, the body of scientific knowledge can be treated as a society, where each finding disseminated in a poster, talk, or publication can be thought of as an an individual. What is currently accepted scientific knowledge is represented by all the living individuals, and the fitter individuals are more likely to create offspring; the body of knowledge evolves. We might hope that this "society" converges on some Truth, but whatever the end goal (if one exists), for it to be healthy and move forward, it requires dissenting opinions. Dissenting opinions are the mutations, the agents of change in the evolution of this knowledge.

This week President Trump ordered a temporary ceasing of media and public communication with government scientists who work in the EPA1. Proximally, this is scary because it marks the censoring of expert voices, the vast majority of whom hold opinions dissenting the President’s views. Distally, this is scary because science should be an apolitical endeavor. Less extreme examples of de jure censorship also exist within the institution of science. The 21st Century Cures Act appropriated government funding for certain research areas within biomedical science. It had bipartisan support and was well received in the media. While it is positive that we find issues important to ourselves and focus on them, we are interfering with the process of science. In an ideal world, we would have one large pool of resources and the issues that were most tractable and would have greatest returns would take the majority of funding. It is too difficult a task to identify those issues, however, and additionally, the biggest funder basic science research in the US, the National Institutes of Health, has directorates which pre-assign funding to particular fields. We do not live in an ideal world, and as with any fashion, certain topics in science get "hot." To funnel more money to fashionable topics is not likely to provide the greatest returns on our investment.

Science is the driver of technological innovation and improvements in health. To impose de jure censorship on science or any other evolving "society" is threatening to would-be improvements. Humans domesticated dogs and bred them, effectively interfering with natural selection. Modern dogs would not stand a chance in the wild. The economy is another "society," and interfering with it by putting price caps on goods can have downstream effects on productivity. While we bred dogs for our own good, and certain cases of price caps may have offsetting benefits, science should be immune to interference. There are certainly instances where we should be able to decide if an application of a scientific finding should be pursued, the underlying knowledge gained should not be sanitized. The best science is science which is unencumbered by any kind of censorship, one which is pumped with resources but checked rigorously by supporters and dissidents alike.

[1] Hope remains because this is not the first time a head of state has done this recently only for it to get reversed.


Jury Duty

March 11, 2016

An aside: Last semester I fell out of the habit of updating my website in any capacity, mostly due to the time and energy commitment I was making to one statistics course in particular. It's over and I'm free.

This week I finished up a two-week long jury duty commitment, and I'll talk about some of the more interesting parts of it. Two weeks sounds like a long time, and it was, but to suggest that we were working hard from 9 to 5 would be a gross overstatement.

The Schedule

Monday: Leap Day. Oh joy. Arrival at 9am. About 100 people were called that day, and they had a lot of cases that needed jurors. I get called, and join a group of about 20-25 people for light questioning or conversation with the opposing attorneys. They present some basic facts about the case. They ask us if we might be inclined to have biases. Do we bike ride in NYC? Is it possible for a police officer to make a mistake? Do we have a fundamental problem with personal injury litigation? I didn't get many direct questions, just some simple yes or nos. And that was all we did before lunch. I was late returning because of the security line at the court, and when I walked into the room, there was only one woman and the two attorneys. I'd been picked. Not because I was late, though, as embarrassing as that was. And so I was officially on the jury for Engler vs Araujo in a civil suit in the New York State Supreme Court system. The rest of the afternoon was spent waiting for a judge to be assigned to the case, and by 4pm, they let us go.

Tuesday: Arrival at 2pm. We met our fellow jurors. The woman and I were two alternates; the rest had already been picked the week before. As a group, we walked to the actual courthouse in a different building where the trial would be, and it started right away with opening statements. This was our first "full afternoon", and it went from about 3-4:30, and we were dismissed.

Wednesday: Apparently Wednesday is when our judge ("Her Honor"... as if this is Victorian England) does other things besides have trials, so we were off.

Thursday: Our first half day, starting at 9:30am, and our first taste of direct and cross-examination. You'd think a half day would be a full four hours. It was not. We probably began by 10:15 or so, and by 12 or 12:15 we were done. Two hours, max.

Friday: Our first full day. We continued with all the (seemingly irrelevant) details of the case, inane questions, and answers whose nuance or non-verbal nature never gets recorded. And just as a half day was less than two hours of actual trial time (for the jury, anyway), a full day was simply double that. I imagine the judge and attorneys were working during all of the down in-between time, but for us, a full day was never more than four or five hours of trial.

Monday: Full day.

Tuesday: Full day, but closing up. We got to closing arguments, and by mid-afternoon we were given instructions on deliberation. As it was a civil suit, we only needed five of six people to agree on each part of the verdict. The verdict was not simply guilty or not guilty. We were to establish negligence of both the defendant and the plaintiff. If the defendant was sufficiently negligent, we would have to come up with a dollar figure to award the plaintiff for past and future hardships, with no guide about how to quantify the suffering associated with a partially disabled arm. We started deliberations around 4pm, and began by going around and providing our initial verdict. We had five of six. We could have stopped immediately and finished, but we (ethically, I guess) went through the facts as we saw them and work out some of the issues. Unfortunately, at 4:30, the court officer came in and excused us for the day, and that meant we'd have to come back another day.

Wednesday: Judge's day to fulfill administrative duties.

Thursday: Back at 9:30 to continue deliberations. Within 30 or 45 minutes we were finished, gave our verdict, and walked out as free citizens for the next six years.

The People

No one strayed to far from the stereotype of their role. All the attorneys walking around will middle aged white men. The judge was a no-BS dominant figure who resembled Judge Judy. The cop was another white man with a strong conviction. The artist, the plaintiff, was a white woman in her upper 50s with a sense of adventure and the personality my mother would be drawn to. The doctors could have been predicted perfectly, too. The Jewish one from Westchester was entirely outside his comfort zone when the questioning moved away from rehabilitation medicine. His hair was disheveled and he wore big snow boots with his suit. In complete contrast, the brotastic surgeon was buff, suave, and attractive. I'm lacking a quality reference for my fellow jurors; they were a pleasant bunch, no 12 Angry Men situation here. No overly dominant personalities, but it probably helped that everyone was pretty much on the same page as far as the verdict went.

The Case

As far as trials go, this was a boring one. The plaintiff was riding her bike and the defendant passed her in his truck. He may or may not have hit her as he was turning right. But perhaps she was spooked by the him passing and she hit the curb, overcorrected, and ran herself into the truck. We just don't know. There were no eye witnesses brought to trial, and her memory of it is cloudy.

In some ways the deliberation process was like science without the scientific method. We had evidence, some of which was more reliable or trustworthy than others, and from which we had to make an inductive decision of an abstracted viewpoint: was the defendant negligible in driving his truck? However, the scientific method is a process by which we, the scientists/jurors, set out to test predictions made by our the theory we'd induced from the original evidence. But of course, we don't get to travel back in time to find out if we were correct, and in fact we don't have the opportunity to ask questions at all. If there's a question that a witness could answer to clarify the situation, the jury is out of luck.

I was asked several times why I was picked as a juror considering the fact that I'm a student. Honestly, I'm not convinced being a student should give one more leniencies regarding jury duty than someone who is employed and has real obligations. School is important and causing a student to miss class could be detrimental in the long run, but I'm in a PhD program; I have two hours of class per week and my career (and the fate of the world) will almost certainly be the same having missed those two hours. Furthermore, I've heard people say that attorneys want stupid people on their jury. Maybe that's the case if they don't have faith in their arguments, but if the attorneys believe that their arguments are logical and prove their clients' positions, then they should want smart, thoughtful, reasonable people. A PhD student with few deadlines or urgent responsibilities should fit all of these needs quite well (although I make no claim about my own smarts, thoughtfulness, or reasonableness).

In deliberations, almost everyone was in agreement from the initial round of individual verdict. No one believed the plaintiff's arguments and thought the defendant's had credibility. I disagreed with this last part. The crux of the defendant's evidence was a police report that said the plaintiff got scared by a passing vehicle, rode her bike up onto the adjacent sidewalk, overcorrected and then drove into the back of the truck. I was not convinced by this story. At the speed she said she was biking, she would not have been able to get up onto the sidewalk, nor would she have been able to catch up to the truck to hit it from behind. If she had overcorrected (from either going up onto the curb or just getting to close) and hit the side of the truck at an angle, she probably would have fallen over either onto her right side or forward but from an angle that would have put her right side in more jeopardy than her left. But in fact it was her left arm that was injured. We heard several incompatible versions of the accident, and I did not have enough evidence to suggest that this one was fully credible. Despite my disagreements, I did believe that we did not have enough evidence to suggest that the defendant was negligible, and in any case, in this civil suit, we only needed five of six people to agree.

I began jury duty as an alternate juror for this case, but the first day someone dropped out, and I got picked from a lottery of the three alternates to be the replacement. The guy who dropped out was juror #1, so I took his spot. What this meant is that, unless another person was actively elected, I'd fall into the foreman role. My responsibilities included penning the requests for evidence in the deliberation room, being the spokesperson for the jury through the officer to the court, and providing the verdict. The last one was were the nerves set in. I was nervous that I'd mispronounce the defendant's name, Araujo. I was nervous that I'd flip the negation on the verdict, "We do not find the defendant not negligent." I was nervous to be the carrier of terrible news to this poor lady who'd destroyed her arm and is now partially disabled. The first two were averted because the court clerk read the verdict questions directly to me and all I had to do was respond, "No." I didn't look at the plaintiff during the delivery, and I didn't catch of glimpse of her afterward.


Earth, in a Norwegian Bikini

The Svalbard Noob

June 27, 2015

From the deceptive distance of the window seat, my observations were in line with each my preconceived notions. The sun floated well above the horizon at midnight. The Earth lay bare, successfully fighting off the invasion of greenery but at the cost of being covered in snow and glaciers which inched into the sea between the mountains. A delta of meltwater flowed into the fjord next to the solitary existence of a town of 2000 permanent human inhabitants.

Everything changed when I parted with the safety of the airplane. The campsite sat at the bottom of a small hill, 300 yards from where the airport was built. I suppose I was fortunate to have not checked a bag, which forced to me wear my bulkiest shoes - the hiking boots I would soon be grateful for but frustrated with. The campsite was situated on a grassy pasture on the other side of a foamy moss that oozed muddy water like a dirty sponge. My focus soon diverted from below to what was going on above me, as two birds with an 18-inch wingspan began to caw and darted towards me. They repeatedly climbed to about 10 or 15 feet above the ground and dive-bombed straight for my head. They picked at my skull and made it clear I was a persona non grata. I approached the situation the same way future victims I witnessed did - with confusion, fear, and a general unappreciative attitude towards the beauty of nature. People’s reactions toward these Arctic Terns is a dead giveaway of how new they are to Svalbard. One of the first things you learn, as well as one of the more oft-repeated advices is simply to raise a stick or even wave your hand above your head and the birds will dive-bomb but not make contact. Then you just need a bit of confidence. They’re treated as a nuisance that needs to be protected; they’re special birds because they annually migrate from the North Pole to the South Pole, and anyway it’s your fault for walking near their nests. They're not always successful in protecting their eggs from Arctic Foxes, as you can see, but naturally I was naive when disembarking the metal bird, which ironically gains its power from fuel created with millions-years-old dead organic ones.

Dehydrated Lunch, Hydrated Socks

July 19, 2015

I woke up six hours later, doubling my total sleep for the previous two nights. I haphazardly threw my warm clothes and backups and USA-purchased Clif bars into my cloth backpack, which proved to be a mistake because of the amount of snow it would encounter. I’d scheduled to be picked up at the airport at 8am, so I walked back up the hill and waited. One of the tour leaders drove me into the town center where the hike would depart from, and I did count it as a rather large success when that rendezvous went according to plan. Our group consisted of a mix of five Swedish and Norwegian women and a potpourri of men: a German, Finn, Dane, American, and Russian. Throughout the rest of the trip, I continued to be disillusioned by how many Americans to expect. I’m just glad I wasn’t the one who wore glorified Oxfords instead of real hiking boots.

The tour company provided lunches, a thermos, and a Shaq-sized wetsuit, and we kayaked an hour across the Adventfjord. We began our 3000-foot ascent of Hiorfjellet by goose-stepping the mossy sponge ground and jumping across brooks when the ground below changed from dirt to rock. The Svalbard archipelago developed under water over hundreds of millions of years as sediment was compacted into stratified rock that now crumbled beneath our feet. Much of the hike would be across this gravelly terrain, flat stones in shades of brown, broken from two inches to two feet long, providing their share of treachery for each hiker and the hiker below.

Our lunch spot was chosen for the view. We ripped open our long-awaited food packets, dehydrated meat or grains that only required hot water to be added. The quiet meal was interrupted only by distant birds, as we rejuvenated gazing onto the Adventfjord and Isfjord [image coming soon], where the fresh meltwater had great difficulty mixing with the brackish and salt water from the open sea, resulting in easily noticed color and current changes across the fjord.

The afternoon brought a sudden increase in terrain difficulty. The melting snow was wet, soft, and therefore often unreliable to step over. I developed a reputation for falling through the snow up to my hip. This commonality was epitomized when I fell from above into an igloo, which was only lightly veiled by a thin remaining layer of snowfall. If we weren’t crawling through snow, we were sinking into mud, or creating rock avalanches from eroded mountain parts. The final ascent brought us into the clouds until anything 100 yards away vanished from sight. We proceeded cautiously along a ridge, which could be treated more as a StepMaster at a 30 degree incline in the direction we hiked, and so steep and jagged to the left and right that the wrong foot placement on the slippery snow would inevitably lead to a tumbling death. The summit was flatter, but the thick clouds prevented any appreciation of the fact that we were very nearly on top of the world (if you take for granted that North is up).

The slippery snow made walking down the incline even more disconcerting than up it. The simplest solution was therefore to sit down and slide. Plus, it was much more fun than stepping and faltering, but it was here that I became fully aware of how non-waterproof my hiking pants were, as well as just how vulnerable my ankles were to snow. Very little time elapsed before my socks, which had been my rock, weren’t just soggy, but simply incapable of absorbing the rest of the meltwater inside my boots.

Nevertheless, we trudged on, taking a different route down to take some rest below the clouds at an abandoned coal mine, to watch the reindeer graze, and munch on cookies, which the tour company’s website had charmingly advertised as an incentive to join the hike. The remainder of the descent brought more mud, steep slopes, and a close call where my lost footing nearly turned a gentle slide downhill into a tumble. We traversed the same flatter, mossy plain and same fjord by kayak, which depleted any last drops of energy our exhausted bodies held.

The trip leaders offered to drive me the two and a half miles back to the airport, but I had to go to the one ATM in town to pay for my campsite stay. So instead of taking the ride, I walked to the ATM and then started the final leg of my day. Despite my yearning to shed my wet socks and for a warm shower and hot meal, I found it a small thrill to leave the city limits by myself because, by law, a least one person in your party is required to take a rifle as protect from polar bears. During the summer along the road, though, the risk is low as ever, so it wasn’t quite a necessity. And I managed to arrive safely not even 12 hours after I’d departed for the hike that morning.


Buzzfeed Quizzes and The New York Times

April 22, 2015

Buzzfeed has a quizzes feature. They're not usually tests of knowledge per se, but rather polls that offer some interactive feature by attempting to describe your life in some way based on your answers. Scroll through their list of most recent quizzes and you can see exactly this. While they are meant to be fun and playful, my descriptors include vapid and uninspired on a generous day. But, it's important to note both that they are certainly a window into pop culture and fast-changing societal beliefs, and also that Buzzfeed has done a phenomenal job promoting them. After scrolling past plenty of Buzzfeed quizzes, I managed to find a single one that actually related to something more substantive. It's part of a weekly series, "Do You Know What Happened In The News This Week" that tests your current events knowledge.

Last week, Gail Collins published a Buzzfeed-style quiz in the New York Times Opinion section, "Take Your Hillary Temperature". I do not think this reader-writer communication style is going anywhere soon. I do believe, however, that this method can actually be a subtle and fun way of getting your news. Instead of simply presenting facts or relevant parties' opinions, that information is provided in a different form. It's fun because it's interactive and tailored to the reader, while potentially also offering the same information as a traditional news article. Instead of "Republicans accuse Clinton of mishandling the Benghazi situation, while her detractors from the left say she's too hawkish," Collins offers the reader the same information (albeit requiring the reader to do a fair amount of inductive reasoning in the more subtle answers) behind the cloak of your own prospective opinion.

The failure of this method, however, is that while there may be nuance within one or more of the options, (although this is almost exclusively found in Collins' serious political answers), there's no nuance across them. This is why quiz authors typically provide an opt-out choice. For example, the reader is prompted for the "thing I like most about Hillary Clinton."1 The opt-out answer is "She has a dog named Seamus," which appeals to two very different types of readers: The fun-only or otherwise ignorant readers, along with those with whom the other three answers don't resonate. The other options, while more serious, have equally little character:

  1. She has a dog named Seamus. Translation: I don't know/I don't care/other.
  2. The grandma thing is nice, but she'll probably overdo it. Translation: Either this is skepticism in her ability to market herself, or it's sexist ("I'm focusing on her lack of female qualities, rather than her objective ability as a candidate").
  3. No matter what disaster happens, she comes back fighting. I just wish there weren't so many disasters. Translation: She and I are unwavering and dogmatic, and also agree on policy.
  4. She believes in universal health care and tax reform that doesn't make things worse for people on the bottom. I am a person of simple needs. Translation: I like that she is a Democrat. This is probably why I read Collins' piece in the first place.
There is potential in Buzzfeed-style quizzes to inform in place of news via this more interactive, enjoyable medium. However, it has to be done with care, because if not, it ends up as a joke, in line with 95% of Buzzfeed's own.

[1] In addition to my other qualms, to promote the idea that we should have a single favorite thing about a candidate is not a method for healthy judgment of candidacy.


Derelict Umbrellas

April 20, 2015

Every rainstorm in New York City is accompanied by the death of thousands of umbrellas. The small, pop-out types with the black canvas dominate in prevalence. They are littered everywhere, decrepit and pathetic, unlikely to have been made with any robust structural integrity in the first place. So the streets become a graveyard, always on an appropriately grim day, where you can walk by and experience the remnants of a simple tool that we put so much faith in to keep ourselves pleasantly dry.

On a brighter day, when you're primed by the cyclists whizzing past, you might be more likely to notice the remains of once-loved bicycles clinging to the city streets. The end-of-life story of the bikes is more gnarly, however, like an animal bleeding to death. Less easily replaceable, they were secured to a fixture until becoming the object of malice. Perhaps just a single tire was removed, but along with it the owner's will to restore its vitality. Over time, the carcas further decomposed, and on the macro scale, a short stroll will reveal these departed creatures in every state of that decay. In the final step, remaining only is the frame, the skeleton which lays for years, no longer providing any nourishment for the market, but only the reminder of a once active being.


Middle School Poetry Explication

April 2, 2015

In 7th grade English class, we had a poetry unit. In September 2013, I found the notebook which had my assignments and wrote an explication on one of the poems. The explication is cheeky but honest.

"My Sister"

by EG Gaffin-Cahn

11/26/2001

I sit there,

on my wheelie chair,

I play on my computer,

as I play solitaire,

my sister comes,

and tells me this,

"Get off, get off,

I want to play now"

So I yell as she goes

away crying

she tells on me,

for nothing it seemed.

She claimed that I

screamed for no reason at all,

I get mad,

but I stay on my seat

or I'll lose the computer,

I bargain with them,

after my game is over,

she can play…

on the stupid computer.

We can see two literary devices employed here, each aligned with a different purpose in the narrative. One could argue that the sparse use of simple rhyme suggests an ignorance toward structured rhyme schema and its fluidity. However, a careful read uncovers that the use of rhyme early in the poem is representative of the relative calm in which the plot rests. It may be no coincidence that the A-A-B-A rhyme scheme in the first four lines is abruptly ceased when the antagonist enters the scene. The piece also has a choppy flow to it, and the author seems to deliberately split thoughts onto multiple lines. It is likely that the purpose of this was to build suspense as the plot is developed.The use of the ellipsis on the penultimate line supports this hypothesis.

The narrator attempts to portray the other main character, the "Sister," in a harshly negative light. He describes her entrance as coupled with immediate impatience and subsequent frustration. The Sister moves quickly from commanding to vulnerable, if not victimized, although the direct cause of this is circumvented by the author. The Sister "tells on" the narrator, likely to the supportive characters "them," but her account of the incident does not match the narrator's. The Sister "claimed that [the narrator] screamed," but the narrator's first mention of such an event is described as contemporaneous with the Sister's bawling departure. However, the author hints that either the narrator's claim is not entirely truthful, or that there are events missing by the subtle inclusion of the words "it seemed." It is also possible that the narrator is only casting doubt on his or her own recollection, and not suggesting deceit within the narrative.

The narrator further describes his or her own victimization by showing the reader the allocation of his or her priorities. The protagonist is "mad" because of the incident, but it is clear that his or her focus is not on the antagonizing Sister, but rather on the game at hand. The narrator then attempts to avoid appearing weak to the reader by claiming to "bargain" with the unknown "them." Certainly having to relinquish control of the "computer" after less than a single game of "solitaire" shows that the narrator did not have the strong arm at the negotiating table. The "them" appear to have more control over the operations on the "computer," despite the narrator referring to "my wheelie chair," "my computer," and "my seat" (italics mine for emphasis). This detracts from the narrator's credibility, but this fact is still overshadowed by the apparent alignment of the narrator's priorities. The final manner in which the narrator describes his or her victimization is by the dramatic shift in attitude towards the "computer" from the rhyming, calming start of the poem, to the harsh and cynical word "stupid." It is clear that the Sister has tarnished the narrator's mood and even after her departure, the narrator's enjoyment of the device is soured. It is possible that the narrative the author creates is symbolic of a greater worldly struggle such as religious extremism or first-world poverty, but it is unlikely due to the known age of the author and the lack of any evidence for metaphor or symbolism.


On Pitchforking

February 8, 2015

Stronger than the legal precedence for the notion of innocent until proven guilty in the American justice system is our fervent pride in this tenet. But in actuality, the social landscape of our culture often betrays this ideal. A topical example is the "scandal" surrounding the New England Patriots' alleged under-inflating footballs to gain an advantage, and a less recent one is the public reaction and media portrayal of the Casey Anthony murder trial. Littered among public reaction to these events was the assumption of guilt1,2,3;4,5. We are phenomenally hypocritical in these moments of faux-omniscient judgment. But perhaps it plays some benefit? You could imagine staying disinterested in the events; learn what is known as fact and simultaneously avoid drawing implications. This requires restraint, trust in the NFL or the jury, and perhaps a bit of logic-based social callousness (after all, when it seems obvious to people that a crime was committed, the "academic" stance feels a bit un-human). After removing ourselves emotionally from the event, we may find that we become uninterested in the story altogether.

Media (mainstream, blogs, well-followed Twitter accounts, etc.) are patronized most when they can develop a compelling emotional storyline to which readers can attach, so it makes sense that there is an abundance of (overly-)dramatized journalism surrounding these events. If the media posted emotionless facts only, we'd find that even when the time came to pass judgment, our desire to consume these stories would be diminished to the point of removing the story's "newsworthy" status; logical callousness at the story break is difficult to reverse. So while we are doing the accused an injustice, perhaps our unfounded "knowledge" plays an important role in making an event a story worth telling.


Group Membership is an (Un)Happy Middle Ground

January 12, 2015

Recently, the youth group (USY) affiliated with Judaism's conservative movement made a decision to alter its constitution. The change, voted on by the youth themselves, is essentially a less rigid policy on interfaith dating for the youth groups's officers. One of the dilemmas that they wrestled with, and which many organizations must face, was how to bolster meaningful and long-term membership.

The fundamental problem comes from the fact that an organization imposes a value system on its members with the intention of creating a self-sustaining group, but which might simultaneously turn people off from it. In a simplified version of this framework, the group leaders have only one ability: to shift how strongly they regulate that value system. Unfortunately, neither extreme suits their need. In the USY example, one might argue that not having any regulation or mention of interdating will promote culture that intermarries and loses connection to the group. The opposite extreme, that requiring all members only have in-group relations, might be even worse for the well-being of the group because it's so draconian. So perhaps striking a balance somewhere in the middle might be a good place to aim? But what happens when you settle on a middlepoint but do so with flimsy conviction? That stance may turn off the most closely affiliated because they see the position as too weak, but it may also fail to maintain a connection with the more loosely affiliated individuals.

Many mainstream media outlets are finding themselves in this awkward position as well. Increasingly, people are getting their news from online sources and are becoming less inclined to pay for them. The rise of Twitter and Buzzfeed are part of a trend that makes higher-quality, in-depth, and therefore expensive, news sources like traditional newspapers struggle. They have the option to display their content presentation with a clickbait method, a traditional method, or somewhere in between. The clickbait method relinquishes some credibility by offering flashier headlines to attract viewers, but it gets taken less seriously and may have difficulty long-term as the technological and social landscape moves faster than it ever has. The traditional method will retain legitimacy but may lose an increasingly large trigger-happy cohort of content seekers. And once again, a halfway point between the two may be worse than either extreme: It can diminish in quality to the point of losing reputation, while also not being flashy enough to attract viewers. I fear for CNN's sake that they've taken too equivocal a stance. I know that I prefer a combination of the New York Times and Yahoo (and check out the comments section to test your anger management skills), both of which take harder-lined positions on opposite ends of the decision spectrum, to better fulfill all dimensions of my inquisitiveness.

Of course, all is not lost when you have to pick a stance along this spectrum; editors, producers, and leaders have other opportunities and methods to promote readership and membership, they'll just have to work harder to attain them.


Culturally Accepted Boasting

January 7, 2015

We collect stamps on our passports, put our children's university logos and 26.2 stickers on our cars, and keep libraries in our home that are visible to our guests. These are not like photographs that serve to remind us of an experience or event, but rather they have become advertisements of accomplishment, even a boast. If these mementos were really just for ourselves, we'd probably keep them in a more private, intimate place, and perhaps some of these can be found there. But enough aren't that we cannot write the issue off.

You may find some of these examples more objectionable to others, but they are all common enough that we should be able to agree that they are generally culturally accepted as a legitimate means of self-promoting. What is not acceptable would be to verbally tell each and every person who sees your car that you completed a marathon. But, don't they have the same purpose? Are we trying to save face by having a sticker tell the story instead of our mouths? Perhaps we can more easily ignore the silent visual of a sticker or trophy collection. Perhaps we use them not only as points of pride but also as a reference for someone else to connect and share their own experience. Likely each item is different and used for a combination of reasons, but this behavior is generations old and clearly provides us with lots of joy.